Judges are not politicians. That’s what conservative U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts declared last week in Williams-Yulee, when the court upheld a Florida ban that prevents judicial candidates from personally asking for campaign contributions.
Candidates in North Carolina face no such prohibition in fundraising, and the state’s judges increasingly sound like politicians. A 2014 National Journal article described the increasing pressure that North Carolina Supreme Court candidates felt to raise money. One incumbent justice even asked a crowd of lawyers and corporate executives for campaign cash and told them, “I look forward to seeing you in court.”
In last week’s ruling, Roberts warned, “When the judicial candidate himself asks for money, the stakes are higher for all involved,” as potential campaign donors know “that the same person who signed the fundraising letter might one day sign the judgment.” This happens in North Carolina, and the result is a judiciary that is increasingly connected to big-money campaign donors.
Over half of U.S. states have a ban similar to Florida’s. But in North Carolina, the state Supreme Court’s judicial ethics code does not ban personal solicitation of campaign cash, nor does it directly address conflicts of interest resulting from campaign contributions. North Carolina justices can get up close and personal with lawyers and corporations with a stake in the court’s rulings.
When these donors come before the court, the North Carolina ethics rules vaguely instruct judges to recuse themselves from any cases in which “the judge’s impartiality may reasonably be questioned.” High courts in some states, including Pennsylvania, have recently strengthened their rules to require recusal in cases involving donors who gave their campaigns “an amount that would raise a reasonable concern about the fairness or impartiality of the judge’s consideration.”
A few states go even further and prohibit judges from ruling in any case involving campaign donors who gave more than a specific amount. Some rules take the decision of whether to recuse out of the hands of the judge with a potential conflict of interest. But despite record campaign cash in its last two elections, the N.C. Supreme Court has failed to strengthen its ethical rules.
North Carolina was once a model of reform.
For more than a decade, North Carolina managed to minimize the role of wealthy campaign donors in judicial elections. After $2 million was spent by candidates in the 2000 state Supreme Court election, the North Carolina legislature passed a bill creating a groundbreaking public-financing program to mitigate the influence of campaign cash on judges. Instead of receiving money from those with an interest in the outcome of court rulings, most judges opted for public funds.
But conservatives in the North Carolina legislature repealed the program in 2013, leaving private campaign donations as the only option for judicial candidates.
The result is clear: The 2014 North Carolina Supreme Court election saw $5 million in spending – more than 10 times greater than the 2010 race, the last midterm election with public financing.
While the candidates spent big last year, the Republican State Leadership Committee, or RSLC, spent more than $1 million, far more than any candidate. The RSLC received large donations from North Carolina-based Duke Energy, which has billions of dollars at stake in lawsuits in North Carolina courts.
The rule upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in Williams-Yulee is an important step in the direction of critically needed campaign finance reforms and an example the state Supreme Court should follow. But there is still much to be done to protect the impartiality of judges, and a rule requiring judges to sit out cases involving campaign donors would do much more to address voters’ concerns about the influence of big money in our courts.
Billy Corriher of Shelby is the director of Research for Legal Progress at the Center for American Progress.